Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 29 seconds

Reflection on Bowling Alone

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 29 seconds

I started reading this article because I was interested in discussions of social capital vis-a-vis online communities/networks. The article isn’t, however,talking about this (it was written in 1995! Internet babyhood by most standards) – but it was still interesting.

I had heard of this article/book before (I decided to read the free article and skip the book). The title is intriguing, isn’t it? I wondered if bowling was a metaphor of something. Apparently not! The article talks about the importance of social capital for the development of civil society, and then also its importance for democracy. The author mentions a decline (between 1960s and early 1990s) in the US of all kinds of social organizations, including labor unions and Parents-Association organizations (reading this made me reflect on the lack of many of these options in Egypt in the first place, but that’s another topic). One interesting phenomenon amongst these is the decline in bowling leagues (hence the title):

The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Lest this be thought a wholly trivial example, I should note that nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly 3 percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.) The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital. (P. 70, emphasis mine)

The part i emphasized up there relates to my recent discussion of Sidorkin’s “third discourse” and how the side conversations not related to any central discourse are important for learning, but also for developing trust and helping the same individuals involved in the third discourse become more productive in coordinating more serious endeavors. It made me realize that these conversations also help develop social capital. I had not thought of this before. The way social capital is defined here is:

“social capital” refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. (P. 67)

I had connected (online) learning on my mind as I read this, so this quote particularly interested me. It refers to the growth of large national organizations in the US, at the same time that more intimate ones have declined, and highlights an important distinction:

The bond between any two members of the Sierra Club [a national organization] is less like the bond between any two members of a gardening club [a more local organization] and more like the bond between any two Red Sox fans (or perhaps any two devoted Honda owners): they root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other’s existence. Their ties, in short, are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another. (P. 71, emphasis mine)

This made me realize that being a member of professional associations as many academics are, is one level of membership, a distant one in many cases. But being a member of a smaller group where you know the people is a whole other level of engagement. It’s like, I am a member of Educause and OLC (formerly Sloan-C) but what matters more is my membership of the OLC et4online Steering committee, where incidentally I already knew half the members from twitter! It is also different from my affiliation w the rhizo14 or clmooc communities, both different from each other in depth, strength and breadth of my association. But I do know that a MOOC becomes significantly different once I start knowing individuals by name, not as “someone with me in that MOOC”. Social media definitely promotes this over LMS (e.g. coursera) discussion boards because we interact w ppl on their own turf, particularly blogging but even Twitter seems like own turf; also facebook, and to a slightly lesser extent (for me, coz i use it less) google+ .

i was v disappointed by the next paragraph in the article that refers to non-profit organizations but skims over their significance for social capital. This is particulalry important for me with regards to Egypt because NGOs (non-governmental organizations; slighlty different thing) have been key to my (and many other young people’s) civic engagement, esp. before 2011.

The next paragraph brings up the interesting phenomenon of support groups (e.g. For alcohlosim or depression – largely non-existent in Egypt) and he cites Wuthnow for saying these self-help/therapy groups have less impact on social capital for civil society because they are more about focusing on oneself in the presence of others. I had not thought of it, but it’s agood point. I also suspect (tho i was never part of one) that the needed anonymity for some of these means people do not delve into issues beyond the major focus of the support.

Putnam then raises the important point of the family as the major form of social capital, and how the breaking down of family ties over the past few years in the US contributes to this conversation (at this point, I am reminded of the intro to the article that says that even tho focus is on America, much of the article may be relevant to other contexts).

The article also talks about decline in neighborly behavior (same here in Egypt, at least in Cairo) and a general decline of trust.

On p. 73 he cites an interesting correlation found from the World Values Survey (they only surveyed 35 countries but supposedly they represent the ‘world’ haha):

“social trust and civic engagement are strongly correlated; the greater the density of associational membership in a society, the more trusting its citizens. Trust and engagement are two facets of the same underlying factor–social capital.”

This latter reminds me of part of my PhD research, but that’s another story

Putnam suggests e reasons for these changes are mainly demographic incl ppl moving around a lot, not putting roots; and the increase of women in the workforce. This latter (his first reason) raised my feminist hackles. Although he is right at it may give women less time for PTA meetings, he forgets it allows for more development of social capital at work itself! Then again, in his suggestions for further research include exploring possible impact of work relationships on social capital. So he sort of alludes to that.

His second type of reason is technological, mainly referring to TV. He asks (remember this is 1995, “Is technology thus driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests?” – that question is a good one today, too, though. Thinking of myself, my online networks and communities provide an outlet not available to me at work (from reading others’ blogs, I can sense the same, the need to find others you can talk to about certain ideas that receive negative or lukewarm receptions at work) and also a time/space independent place to engage intellectually once I am away from family responsibilities (i.e. Kid asleep). I’m projecting here, but I guess I should ask myself whether the affordances of the social networks are making me invest less in my f2f life which, though not necessarily more valuable to me, is at least one to which i should be more “committed”, via a “social contract” with family and a real contract w work.

Later, in his suggestions for further research he wonders (how insightful?) in the possible impact of electronic networks on social capital. HE could NOT have envisioned the impact of sthg like twitter and cMOOCs on a beginning academic like me, he coild not have imagined the amount of social capital one could build this way, he did not know how a revolution such as Egypt’s could be organized by youth via twitter and facebook, how ppl use these avenues for social change as well as social nonsense.

i wrote this blogpost interrupted several times by my kid, and i was writing as i read the article. I now need time to reflect on the whole thing and its relationship to the other readings and things we’re doing. But will publish this now 🙂 in case others find it helpful.

2 thoughts on “Reflection on Bowling Alone

  1. Susan says:

    Maha, what an interesting, circuitous route from bowling to online connecting and feminism and…..anyway, I have not found that my online connections mentally detract from, or take actual time from, my face-to-face connections. Since #clmooc, they have served an important purpose for me, which was to connect at different levels with people who share a curiosity and intellectual interest in things that the great majority of f2f connections do not share. They’ve increased my social capital and importantly for me, have increased the diversity of people within my connected circles. I now have regular contact with Simon (in France), you (in Egypt), Kevin (in Massachusetts) and Terry (in Kentucky), among many others. There’s no downside in that, for me, but tons of upside!

    1. Maha Bali says:

      Definitely tons of upside! The downer for me is more people to care about and therefore more people to possibly hurt with (e.g. When they are sick or hurt in some way). It’s not really a downer, it’s a sign of the humanity of the relationships, such that i feel their hurt all the way from here…

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